If you’ve ever sat through a film class, or flirted with the art of directing or editing, you know that there are some hard and fast “rules” established in the hundred or so years by people who pointed cameras at things and then assembled those shots to create a story.
Keep all of the action moving in one direction; establish and situate people in the same way from shot to shot; and never “jump the line” — if you put the camera on one side of the actors or action, don’t leap to the other side of the implicit 180-degree line that you’ve established until you begin a new scene.
Once you grasp these rules, it’s easy to pick up on them in movies. But that knowledge can also mislead the viewing experience; a movie doesn’t exist on a base level of how it’s assembled. The filmmakers involved stitch the choices together to accomplish their goal, and viewers can “read” those choices. It’s easy to critique individual brush strokes on a Monet way up close if you never take the time to take a couple steps back and realize, “Oh, shit! These are supposed to be water lilies!” To see the painting in full is greater challenge when you learn about the craft.
Some films invite more scrutiny than others. 2008’s The Dark Knight is an “Ah! See? There!” blockbuster full of technical wonder. Director Christopher Nolan, simply by what he puts on screen and his willingness to pull back the curtain and share his own rapture of the process, invites the instant-dissection even as he reaches for maximum audience absorption. He’s like a magician who teases the first few steps of how he pulled off his trick. We only want to know more.
In the last decade, the pleasures of The Dark Knight’s making-of narrative, and the ways it defied those filmmaking “rules,” became a playground of their own. One example really took off: three years after the film’s release, critic and video essayist Jim Emerson of Press Play uploaded the first edition of “In the Cut,” which broke down The Dark Knight tunnel chase scene, the crux of which takes up just under five minutes of screen time in the 152-minute runtime, in exacting detail. Emerson’s intention was to examine the filmmaking grammar of director Christopher Nolan’s shot choices, along with the work of Dark Knight editor Lee Smith.
It’s quite likely that if you’re a Dark Knight fan, or someone who hung around the internet in 2011, you’ve seen Emerson’s video essay. The nearly 20-minute video may not have gone viral, but it racked up tons of views as it made the rounds with attentive movie-goers. The video was so popular it became a topic of discussion in its own right. People have revisited it less often in the past couple of years, but as The Dark Knight reaches a milestone, the video becomes a fascinating lens for how we talk about movies in 2018, and warrants a new look.
In the video, Emerson looks at the sequence as an editor might. By going down this clinical path, he comes to the conclusion that the scene as depicted — the prelude to Batman and the Joker meeting in the streets of Gotham City — is disjointed, constantly jumping the line, glossing over continuity errors and leaps of logic and space, and ultimately confusing to the viewer.
The lengthy critique does not factor in the story or the intent or the tone or anything else about the film — the focus is just the rules of editing. In his own words, this video essay is a treatise on grammar.
Emerson’s essay was hotly debated when it was first released. Music video and film director Joseph Kahn even offered a fairly point-by-point rebuttal on his blog, which was a refreshing take from an actual industry professional amid a debate that mostly raged among fans and critics. But the lack of distinction between the editing of a movie and the whole of a movie flew over the heads of many viewers and observers, and gave legs to the video.
I count myself among those who, upon first viewing, said, “Hey, The Dark Knight chase scene does jump the line! Boooo! Bad movie!” I, like many others, failed to note, as Kahn did, that there’s never really been an argument for why jumping the line doesn’t work; just that you shouldn’t do it.
In the history of teaching people how to create and how to critique film, there have been an awful lot of rules, but few explanations offered as to why those rules are in effect other than “it’s been established to be the most effective way” or “it’s always been done this way” or “it could be confusing or disjointed if you don’t do it this way.”
The rules exist for good reasons, one being that most people who set out to make a film want to tell a competent story. Rules are good to have, because they give you a set of tools to use that you know are fairly guaranteed to end in the desired result. But very few of your teachers or mentors will ever own up to the fact that if you’re trying to accomplish a different result, or you’re trying to say something more impactful, you can feel free to break those rules. Or you can at least give it a shot, and see if it holds up in the final edit.
This convoy scene holds up in the end, almost exclusively because of the juxtaposition of what follows immediately after. “In the Cut” is a biopsy, which ends before one of the most memorable and flat-out thrilling action sequences of the film: the Batpod being unleashed.
Part of the importance of the convoy scene is that apart from the early aerial shots, the sequence is intended to feel claustrophobic, tense, and as confined as Dent is in the back of the police van — or perhaps as confined as the officers feel once they’re forced to veer off-route and into the tunnel. The shots, the action, and the editing are cramped and off-kilter. The camera and the cuts are jumping back and forth higgledy-piggledy because the characters are all feeling uneasy and out of their element.
Once the Batpod emerges from the crippled Batmobile, the camera movement and the editing shift. When Batman’s weird little motorcycle comes flying out of the smoldering wreck of his hulking urban tank, he’s liberated and mobile. So too is the tone, the pace, and the mise-en-scène of the film. (Sorry, film school word.)
There’s little confusion in the edits as Batman goes flying along at street level. We’re treated to long, gliding shots behind and alongside the Batpod as Batman carves his way toward Dent and the Joker. The cramped nature of the previous sequence is gone. This is Batman in control. The editing, pacing, and shots demonstrate total control.
The first half of this section of the film, the convoy, was about the Joker confining the world, upending it, making it chaotic and confused. The turbulence generated by the editing in the scene seems to be Nolan playing up the idea that the chaos of the Joker pursuing (and in this scene, colliding with) the order of Harvey Dent results in the balance of Gotham City becoming skewed, flipped on its axis, and out of whack. If there are moments of confusion — which come off more as disorientation than anything else — could it not be a representation of the vertigo that the Joker creates as he sets into motion his smash-and-grab plan that will send Gotham spiraling into madness?
The next portion of the film is about the control that Batman exerts over Gotham City. Or perhaps more accurately, this portion is about how Batman envisions himself: a liberating force in his crime-filled and evil world; a savior who is in control at all times, and is the only one who has the means to bring evil to heel.
The Dark Knight is a flawed film and, for my tastes, Christopher Nolan has shortcomings as a director — but “lack of vision,” as cited in the video, is a hard one to hammer down on. Emerson points out Nolan’s tendency to show close-ups of nameless, previously-un-introduced characters a moment before they’re dispatched. The choice of those short shots could very well play into one of the overall themes of the entire Dark Knight trilogy: that the people of Gotham City are tied together, even if they’re unaware of it, and the actions of terrorists and madmen affect everyone; that the nameless and faceless denizens of the city that pass one another by are people, too, with lives that matter.
The legacy of Emerson’s video is a lesson in a more difficult filmmaking hurdle: knowing when you crack a story, when you get the right performance from an actor, when you get the shot with the lighting just right, or heck, when you finally get the timing right on the assembly of your edit. Most films falter from a lack of certainty and confidence in choices — it’s one reason Nolan distances himself from the modern action-movie methodology of setting up 18 cameras that capture every angle so every decision is made in the editing room. He has a plan from the get-go, even if the plan is chaos. In any film class, the last thing you learn are the decision-making skills needed to line up all the parts, learning how to assemble the work of tens or dozens or hundreds of people into one cohesive visual story, and the feeling of getting it right.
In many ways, “In the Cut” seems like the ancestor to the evolving genre of YouTube criticism. What took root as amateur voices talking directly to audiences, and more studious critics like Emerson using their editing skills to pair criticism and the moving image. But in the years since the explosion of YouTube, we’ve seen the advent of “Cinema Sins” and “Honest Trailers,” movie news debate shows, micro-focused film dissections that sound like InfoWars rants, and a trend in fandom that focuses on details as a source of entitlement. The “rules” of filmmaking now empower the “give us $200 million dollars to make the correct version of The Last Jedi” sect. I’m not trying to unfairly lump Emerson in with that set, but it seems like the two camps might not be comprised of completely separate DNA.
As battles rage in YouTube playlists over the “DC expanded universe” and Zack Snyder’s superhero cinema stamp, The Dark Knight and Nolan’s choices hold up. It’s the most celebrated superhero film ever, and one of the best-reviewed films of all time. The fact that it was so successful and remains so beloved (and that the post-Nolan DC films largely experienced diminishing returns both with fans and at the box office) reinforces the idea that the details matter. Nolan has always exhibited himself as a director that cares about the nuts and bolts of his films, and it doesn’t get more granular in nature than the split-second splicing between two kinetic images. Except the way he and Smith connect the dots, the gut instincts needed to build a big picture on a quantum level, is one lesson that can’t be taught.
Bill Hanstock has been working in entertainment reporting and digital media for over a decade. He is a former senior editor and writer for SB Nation and UPROXX.